Choreography 101: Why Did Jackie Chan Speed up His Fights?

By:

Matthew J.R. Kohler

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For forty years, Jackie Chan has been appearing in iconic action films, from being a random stuntman in Enter the Dragon to being a leading man in Hollywood films such as Rush Hour.  Yet, the biggest question remains for this great action star: Why speed up the fights?

Sped-up.

Once you notice it, you can never go back.  All of a sudden, I realized how many of Chan’s fights are sped up.  How?  Let’s take regular motion of a car or a man walking in one of his films.  They walk at a brisk pace, but you can see them move step by step.  In some of Chan’s films, such as Police Story 2, Chan’s fight scenes kind of blur together and look more like a Charlie Chaplin stunt comedy short.

In other films, Jackie Chan has demonstrated how quick he can be or how precise his movements are.  Police Story and Legend of the Drunken Master are perfect examples of that.  Police Story has not only some of the best action pieces, but also my personal favorite.

Non-sped-up.

The action pieces have quick movements with tight editing.  That way, the action moves smoothly.  Whereas in Police Story 2, we see only brief moments of smooth action, which are marred by jarring, sped-up action, making it very difficult to watch.

During the 80s, Chan filmed 21 movies.  Considering that Police Story 2 came out in the late 80s, it’s understandable that he was burning out, since he usually gives it his all with the fight scenes.  Even though most of his action pieces stepped up his game, he had some missteps during these years, Police Story 2 and Armour of God being the most prominent ones.  He almost killed himself in Armour of God, and brutally injured himself and his stunt performers in Police Story 2.  That said, there is no way the fight scenes of those films didn’t suffer in quality.

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Could he have put too much effort into them?  I think so.  And as a result, Chan had to take it easier, by fighting at a slower pace during filming.  Not wanting to disappoint fans with a slower speed, he sped up the fights in post-production.

Jackie Chan is one of the greatest martial art stars, no doubt.  His crazy action scenes and stunts, and his personality, make him such a memorable performer.  Although, I wish Chan took a step back and relaxed a bit during those years for his sake and for his art.  His fans know how much he worked to perfect the action.  Even sped up, however, those scenes are still better than most fight scenes that America has produced in the last forty years.  (By the way, American fight scenes are usually sped-up; look out for my blog coming soon on this topic).

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Choreography 101: Who Started It?

By:

Matthew J.R. Kohler

The beginning to a fight can be the most challenging to make, just like the beginning of a movie.  The challenge for most is who should start the fight.  That might sound crazy, but it is important.  If someone has more at stake than the other, then they should be the starter.  The beginning is my favorite part of a fight.  The reason being that I love the buildup and the tension but I also enjoy how it’s all going to start.

Many fight scenes simply start with none of what I just mentioned.  In The Protector, both the main character and the bodybuilder just kind of charge at one another; nothing to grasp there.  Even though a lot of the fights in the movie are exciting, there was no payoff at the end.  Not only did you not know Tony Jaa’s character, but also the filmmakers didn’t even try to make you want the fight, they just gave it to you.  When a director just hands over a fight, you know they didn’t give it their all.

Empire Strikes Back is a great example of a film that makes you want the climactic fight to happen.  Created with the style of Kurosawa, Lucas and his team created the stall, or slow walk for the duel.  The story of the fight is that Luke confronts Vader in order to save the ones he cares about.  Through the fight scene, though, the characters have to explain this.

The entire movie is built around facing your fears by confronting the dark side.  Luke Skywalker, sworn to walk the path of peace (Jedi), believes he is not afraid of the threat that is Darth Vader.  When the two finally collide, Luke Skywalker is the one who starts the battle.  This is significant for one reason: never do Jedi start a conflict.  Later in the battle, Luke shows once again that he is not ready.  Not only does he start to fear Vader, but also he simply cannot overcome him.  Also, in the middle of the fight, Luke begins to realize what he is becoming.  For two movies, Luke was slowly turning to the dark side with displays of recklessness (as shown in A New Hope, and pointed out by Yoda earlier in Empire), selfishness (facing Vader alone), and fear (of Vader).  What happens internally with Luke adds a new layer to this unforgettable fight scene, and makes “I am your father” a truly potent climax.

Fight scene openings are hard to accomplish.  If the audience doesn’t feel the excitement at the opening, then the fight scene is doomed to mediocrity (or worse).  Check out below for fight scenes with the best openings.  Enjoy!

 

Choreography 101:  Why Tony Jaa Never Broke Through

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By: Matthew J.R. Kohler

Ten years ago, Tony Jaa was one of the biggest names in martial arts.  For a while, Jaa was on top of the world.  Not only was he getting compared to Bruce Lee, but also he was the first martial arts star outside of China.  Although he had everything in place, the fame wore off shortly afterwards.  If you are trying to break into this genre, look at his career as an example of what not to do.

If we are talking talent, Jaa has it as a martial artist.  My first experience with him was in The Protector.  One of the most influential fight scenes was the one-shot fight in the restaurant.  Impressive as it is, the movie had many other fights that showed off Jaa’s skills.  As a martial artist myself, I don’t know how he did some of those moves.  In fact, I can’t believe the man didn’t get injured.  Apparently, Jaa could do no wrong.

Before Jaa did The Protector (a worldwide release), he did his biggest movie, titled Ong Bak: Muy Thai Warrior.  I personally liked The Protector more, but the scene where he bursts through fire with a running knee was classic.  With this film, Jaa primed himself to be the next biggest action star.  That is until he himself ruined that.

My biggest complaint with him in his films is that he’s not a character.  What do I mean by “character”?  If you look at the big five (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Sammo Hung), they all have distinct personalities onscreen.  In all of Jaa’s films, he is just the guy that can flip around and swing a crazy knee.  Even though martial arts movies are about the action, we also want to see someone who’s relatable to us.

He also never developed characters in his movies.  In The Protector, the entire movie is of him never speaking and running around beating people up.  Sure, you could say, “All I want is action!”.  But wouldn’t you miss the great wisdom Lee brings to the table in Enter the Dragon?  Or Jackie Chan’s humor in Police Story?  Tony Jaa was more emotionless than Arnold in Terminator.  Even though Jaa’s flaws were shown in these movies, I was willing to give him a break.  After all, they were only his first couple of films.

Tony Jaa knew how to destroy opponents, but never knew how to tell a story through a fight scene.  Where there’s a story there is also tension and anticipation, which (ideally) make the finale much more exciting.  Look at The Protector’s final battle.  It’s ten minutes long (after six other fights), and it stays well past its welcome.  Jaa beats up the big dude, then he has to fight him with Elephant bones, and finally cuts off his tendons.  But, like I said, the movie had so much action-packed excitement that such blemishes were excused.

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After 2006, Jaa disappeared from the scene until he returned to do Ong Bak 2 in 2009.  In another article I talked about martial art sequels being the death of a career; this movie is the best example.  Ong Bak 2 and 3 were disasters.  They brought nothing fresh to the series.  Jaa directed these movies too, which did not help matters.  The difference between him and Bruce Lee is Jaa is a martial artist, while Lee is an artist.  Sadly, the failures of these two films were only the beginning.

Jaa later did many other sequels, such as The Protector 2, Killzone 2, Furious 7, and now XXX 3.  Protector 2 was a joke, and all of the others either show him as a background character or were a flop.  A certain fight in Protector 2 blew my mind on how stupid it was.  Tony Jaa sets his shoes on fire and has a slow-motion fight with fire (which is obviously CG, by the way).  The fight is so poorly choreographed that it’s laughable.   And once again, Jaa hardly acts in the film.

I hope people will remember Tony Jaa for what he did in the early to mid-2000s.  Was it as impactful as the big five?  No, but he made two excellent films.  If he could have had an Ang Lee or John Woo direct him, I think Jaa’s path as an actor would have been far more impactful than two cult classics.  When looking back, Jaa was a perfect example of someone with amazing skill, but not an amazing personality.  We as an audience remember the action of an action star, but we also remember the character.  That is why the greats have survived for decades.  On the bright side, Jaa is only 40, so he has plenty of time to break through.  By comparison, Donnie Yen was 45 when he broke through with Ip Man.

Choreography 101: Please Light the Fight!

By: Matthew J.R. Kohler

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After watching Batman v Superman and Netflix’s Daredevil, I realized that nobody cares about lighting anymore.  What is lighting?  Why use this ancient technique?  Well, I’m here to tell you that lighting is one of the most important devices to use in storytelling, preferably in dialogue scenes.  But, I will try to shed some light on how lighting can make a fight scene special.

Movies like BvS feel so emotionless mainly because the lighting is non-existent.  Lighting is supposed to show how serious a situation is (like, ya know, fighting a godlike creature without killing numerous civilians in the process).  Lighting also helps to show us who the characters are, so that when they are in a fight, we care about them.  In fact, lighting can be part of a character signature look (picture how Don Corleone is lit as he sits behind his desk in The Godfather).  If that same lighting was used for everyone else in that movie, it would, obviously, not be as definitive of Don Corleone. 

But, when watching BvS, it’s very clear that there is no distinct lighting for anyone.  This is a problem because not only does everyone look the same, but also it sets the tone for everyone to be the same.  In Fist of Fury, the starkly different lighting of the protagonist and antagonist creates tension between them.  The lighting on Bruce Lee makes him look heroic, and the villain’s lighting, of course, makes him look evil.  How can you tell that, you ask?  Villains usually have shadows underneath their eyes, while protagonists have a glow to their figure. 

Logical lighting is part of what qualifies film as art.  Now, you maybe thinking, “What a film snob!  Good day!”.  Well, don’t leave yet, because I’m not done.

My biggest complaint with Daredevil is that you cannot see any of the fights.  I wasn’t a big fan of season one fight scenes, but at least I could see the characters’s actions.  What is so cool about a scene that is too dark to see?  This was a problem in all thirteen episodes.  Inexcusable.  In Empire Strikes Back, the Luke vs. Vader fight scene is dark, yes, but you can still clearly see everything that’s going on.  With Daredevil, it’s almost like the crew knew what they were doing.  I believe that the reason why people make their scenes so dark is that they know their fights are weak.  That said, when you can see the fights, they are very lame.

As I mentioned, lighting can do some unique things, such as build tension.  It can reveal sweat on the two fighters, or emphasize something you would normally not see in a fight.  The scenes in Batman (1989) make good use of lighting.  Not only do they make the action scenes feel like a fantasy, but also it creates a unique universe.  With BvS, the lighting makes us feel…like we’re in the real world…I guess?  Regardless of the filmmakers’ vision in terms of lighting, the movie looks just like the Daredevil show, which looks just like The Dark Knight.  At least Batman ’89 looks different from Superman ’78, and even from the other Tim Burton movie—Batman Returns.  And that is the beauty of lighting: you can use it build your characters and your universe, while making the audience feel real emotions.

There’s no easy way to say it: lighting is a dying art.  More people need to realize why certain movies/ television shows don’t look great.  The reason is that the lighting is not there.  Lighting is one of the harder things to do and is a time-consuming job, which is why movies and TV shows do it less in our fast-paced production world.  Maybe we can try to evolve lighting to enhance our fights and story instead of downgrading films and using “going for realism” as an excuse for laziness.

Building Your Characters

 

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Last week, Batman v Superman was released to mixed reviews.  The bad reviews have focused mainly on the choppy plot and overuse of CGI (and rightfully so).  But I have noticed that there hasn’t been nearly as much talk about the lack of development of the female characters.  I think one of the huge problems with this movie is that Wonder Woman, a very strong and rich character, was not developed or defined, yet she largely contributes to the third act, and her appearances are peppered throughout a lot of the movie.  Seeing as how there has recently been a large demand for more prominent female roles in movies, I am surprised there has not been more criticism on this.

If I were a Wonder Woman fan, I would be upset.  The trailer leads me to believe that she is going to be part of the center piece to the film.  But, the point of her appearance seems to amount to nothing more than DC being able to say, “Look, we have a female superhero!”  Bravo, guys!  This was done fifty years ago with Batgirl in the 60s Batman show.  Not only is Wonder Woman just senselessly in this movie, but also she is as bland as Marvel’s female characters.  They act all the same (granted, so do all of the male characters). 

It would have been cool if Wonder Woman was a third party contestant.  She is out for Superman’s blood because her sister, who moved to Metropolis, died in Superman’s fight with Zod.  I would have loved to see her as the main villain of the movie.  This would have made for a much juicier role, and would have been one hell of a bold introduction for a decades-old character into the film medium.  As it is, though, you are left wondering why Wonder Woman would work with Superman.  Wonder Woman, being an ageless Amazonian, would be a perfect tie-in to the first main villain, Vandal Savage (who is also immortal).  That said, I think it’s a real shame that such a classic character was sidelined in her introduction.

I felt the same way with Black Widow.  It has taken six years to learn anything about her.  And I’m not asking for a lot of character development.  Black Widow would work just fine as a basic character, but she needs to be more than “I’m a woman who can also fight”.  You know who also could fight?  The bride in Kill Bill, and she had much more personality.  I’m not a fan of the movie, but admit that it is intriguing to see Uma Thurman own the character as the vengeful swords woman.  Look at Michelle Yoeh’s character in Supercop.  Not only is she awesome as a fighter, but also she is Jackie Chan’s character’s superior, who forgets to enjoy life sometimes.  That is simple but effective, unlike more modern, big-budget films.

Batman and Superman have been done to death in films, so I think that starting a DC universe with those two is a very uninteresting move.  What would have been interesting is starting the universe with a Wonder Woman solo film; in other words, something we haven’t seen before.  If we’re going to be introduced to such a character, I expect to be given a cohesive view of the character, and not just see a faceless fighter for two hours.  Sure, WW is not a bonafide box office draw (yet), but neither was Iron Man before 2008.  In our pro-diversity climate, DC could have one-upped Marvel by making the first successful solo female superhero movie.  Unfortunately, it seems like they were more interested in making the eighth Batman movie.

Choreography 101: Flips Hurt the Fight

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by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

I don’t know when this trend started, but every movie now has characters who know Parkour.  As Captain America and the Transformers have demonstrated, somehow Parkour is very easy to learn.  It CAN be used effectively, and I’m here to tell everyone how to use this dangerous tool.

People doing aerials: I’m all for that.  Over the last year, I’ve been learning more acrobatics to increase my falling dynamic.  But, sometimes Parkour is used so much that it stops becoming special.  When you give away the kitchen sink in the first scene, the character’s maneuvers become less special.  A good example is Captain America in The Winter Soldier.  We see what he is capable in the first ten minutes of the fight, so there are no surprises in the rest of the film.  Every time I watch Police Story 2, I’m blown away by the showdown in the park.  Jackie Chan is fast, but this might be some of his fastest choreography.  When Chan uses the pipe, he is quick.  I would have loved to see more diversity instead of the occasional flip.  If you want to talk about realistic, then let’s discuss Parkour’s biggest problem.

            -Watch closely, these are TRAINED warriors

How many times have you seen someone flip, and their opponent just watches them?  Why doesn’t the opponent just kick the flipper in the face?  It’s such a boneheaded choreography mistake that upsets me not only as a martial artist, but also as an action fan.  I want to be in the universe, but if you keep having choreography errors where one just watches the other guy do something cool, then I’m going to lose interest.  “Daredevil” the show is guilty of what I just described.  The fight scene between Nobu the ninja and Daredevil was a fight between two great martial artists.  Yet the fight suffers at the hands of Parkour.  Several times Daredevil throws a corkscrew kick or a “high risk” move, and the NINJA just stands and takes it.  Now, I know if you can get the move off then the speed of the flip is fast, but the ninja’s reflexes should be too.  It would have been great to see Daredevil paying for doing these childish moves on him.  Instead, they both do childish moves!

Flipping makes no sense when someone is critically injured.  Unless you are a superhuman, “Daredevil” the show is about an ordinary human (with insane athleticism).  So how is a man, whose body is downright shredded, able to still do kip ups and handsprings?  He is bleeding a lot, AND he is injured in vital areas, which should prevent him from moving that way.  In the final fight of Romeo Must Die, Jet Li’s fists are burnt.  Then, the villain peels flesh from his hands.  Li is not able to use his hands for most the fight, and he has to protect his hands.  This told a story.  Daredevil didn’t do any of that.  The fight scene could have showed Daredevil understanding that his battles have to be shorter.  Otherwise, his injuries will catch up to him one day.

The concept of involving gymnastics in a fight scene is exciting.  Jackie Chan used them for falls and Tony Jaa used them to showcase his skills.  Which one is right?  Both are; they just have to be used in the right way.  I think fight scenes fall flat when they try to be flashy.  When you are just showing moves on the screen that don’t mean anything and do not advance the story, then this is how you lose your audience.

 

Choreography 101: What is Reality?

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by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

It has been a while since I made a post in our Choreography 101 series, but the wait is well worth it.  This week I’m talking about how a lot of movies I see break reality in fight scenes.  Nothing is more jarring in a fight scene than when a main character is suddenly revealed to be physically capable of certain things, even though we had no prior knowledge of it.  It would be like if Indiana Jones, mid-way through a movie, started fighting like Agent Hawk in Armour of God. It wouldn’t make sense.  So how do you keep a characters’ physical abilities consistent?  How do you make your audience believe what you are showing them?

Setting up your universe:

Every movie needs a universe, especially action movies.  It doesn’t matter if the universe is small like Rocky, or big like Star Wars¸ but there needs to be one.  In the first thirty minutes of an action movie, the director should show an action sequence.  That way, the audience knows how the fights are going to be for the rest of the film.  Whether it is a brutish slugfest like in Rocky, or if the fights are well-choreographed like in a Jet Li movie, the audience needs an introduction.

Not only that, your characters need to be consistent with the universe.  Look at Jackie Chan in Mr. Nice Guy.  He is a cook who doesn’t know martial arts, which is why he is not a cop.  Fifteen minutes later, he is taking on the best of the best in hand-to-hand combat.  It’s pretty hard to suspend disbelief, isn’t it?

But when you look at another one of his movies, such as Rumble in the Bronx, they demonstrate the speed and accuracy of Chan within the first ten minutes of the movie.  They also tell us that he is a martial arts expert.  Right then, I am able to get on board with Chan kicking the crap out of anyone.  Plus, he is fighting ordinary men throughout the movie, which is evident when none of them show martial arts abilities. Chan destroys them in one or two punches.

What I notice when watching good action flicks is how well the main protagonist’s skills are illustrated.  In Commando, John Matrix is considered the best of the best.  Yes, he eliminates EIGHTY people with no effort, but it makes no sense that directly afterwards he can hardly take on one out-of-shape bad guy in hand-to-hand combat.  Although this movie is amazing, this scene is pretty ridiculous.

Stop making your hero cool for coolness’s sake:

The perfect example of this is Legolas from the Middle Earth franchise.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, Legolas is equally as good as some of the other characters in the fellowship.  Sure, he jumped on a troll and two-for-oned a Uruk-hai, but that was the biggest thing he did.  As we continued in The Lord of the Rings, he was depicted as the most skilled character by far, but he was still believable.

Then, the head scratcher came in The Hobbit movies.  For some reason, Legolas was more skilled in these movies than in The Lord of the Rings.  How?  Why could he just jump from barrel to barrel or take on an army by himself?  So many movies want to have action scenes just because they have the technology to do so, and because they think the audience will think it looks cool.  The biggest problem with this is the filmmakers don’t understand the phrase “based in reality”.  If a movie tells me that Superman can jump only fifty feet, then ten minutes later he flies around the world, then the movie is forgetting its own rules.

In Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee takes on the entire dojo in the first fight scene.  Then, Robert Baker demonstrates how menacing he is in a later scene.  It makes sense these two have an awesome battle in the end.  However, there are also movies that don’t set up how awesome the villain is, which makes the final fight so much less exciting.

Romeo Must Die is guilty of this crime.  Earlier in the film, the main bad guy tries to see how quick Jet Li is.  Jet Li shows that he is much quicker than the main bad guy, yet the final fight is still about five minutes.  Why?  In the movie they do not explain how the villain became such a threat.  All they would need is a simple line of dialogue, like “I’ve learned his weakness”, and base the fight off of that.  Some sort of explanation would have made the movie more accessible to people outside of martial arts fanatics.

Explanation goes a long way:

One of my other biggest problems with fight scenes is when the filmmakers expect you to just know what is going on.  For example, how does Captain America go from hand-to-hand combat to doing parkour?  We had never before seen him do parkour in the movies.  You cannot change a person’s style in a fight scene just because.  And I know, most would say to me, “It’s a fight scene, who cares?”  If you are watching the movie (especially an action movie), then you should care.  It’s like when you are watching a horror movie.  When they scare you a certain way, the movie is set up to scare you in similar ways again.

0:00-4:40–Non-Parkour Cap; 4:40-5:00–Parkour Cap (from Winter Soldier)

So, a character morphing from one style to another in an instant doesn’t make sense.  Why does the fighting style of the lightsaber duels in Star Wars change from The Phantom Menace to  Revenge of the Sith?  How do the Jedi unlearn that style by Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope?  Movies should try to explain some things to us, so we know what reality they are based in.  Look at The Matrix—it takes an hour to set up its reality. By the time a fight scene happens, you are blown away.  In contrast, look at its own sequels. Suddenly, Neo is all powerful outside of the matrix too.  Why?!

From now on, before you call a fight scene realistic, be sure that it makes sense within the context of the movie’s universe.